In June 2009 – days before shooting started – director Steven Soderbergh was fired from his film. He had meddled too much with the script. The studio wanted him gone.
Moneyball, a back-office drama about the Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane’s quest to revolutionise baseball analytics, was eventually shepherded – by a substitute director, Bennett Miller – to six Oscar nominations. It was a Hollywood success story. But for Soderbergh it was more evidence that Hollywood was failing: another film made in competition with its studio.
The director announced his retirement from film-making a few weeks later. “Movies don’t matter any more,” he said. Directors were being treated like dirt.
Almost 10 years later. Another revolution. Soderbergh hasn’t changed, but Hollywood has. High Flying Bird, his third film since his return to feature directing in 2017, lands in a new world. A micro-budget Netflix production shot on a smartphone, it’s a very different sports drama, but another story about an innovator upturning the order for the love of the game.
André Holland stars as Ray, a basketball agent whose acquisition of the year’s number one draft pick would be a slam-dunk, if only his player was allowed to play. There’s a lockout between the NBA and the athletes, a dispute over pay that has left new recruits like Ray’s client, Erick (Melvin Gregg), sidelined.
The games are off, but the business of basketball is in full swing. This, it’s made clear early and with some force, is the white man’s world – a world where team owners and TV executives (majority white) hustle over the talents of a 75% black athletic body. “They wanted control of a game we play better,” says Ray’s mentor (Bill Duke). “They invented a game on top of a game.”
Ray, a black man looking after the interests of young black men, has to navigate carefully. But, with the help of a sparky former assistant (Zazie Beetz), he takes on the corporations (personified by an ultra-slimy Kyle MacLachlan) and uses their staleness against them. The digital age offers opportunities the old guard have been too slow to tackle. The lockout covers TV broadcast, so streaming platforms are fair game.
It’s here that Netflix sub themselves in and it’s this celebration of the company’s own disruptor status where the film fouls up. A particularly clunky scene has Ray, shoring up his client’s confidence in his scheme by proudly announcing that he’s got meetings lined up at Netflix. It plays like a meta love-in between Ray, Soderbergh and the studio, but Netflix – which spent more than $13bn on original productions last year – is too big to claim outlaw status.
Still, High Flying Bird makes risky plays. The bold take on race and sport isn’t – and couldn’t be – Soderbergh’s alone. Instead, the film is passed between the director and the screenwriter, Moonlight playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. His script zips between sports jargon and scripture, analysis and allegory. One sequence has a character draw parallels between professional sport and slavery, then another character quickly ridicule the same. We’re left with Ray’s mentor as our guide and castigator: “Anyone who refers to the institution of slavery in front of me, particularly in reference to basketball and its players, must say these words: ‘I love God and all of his black people.’” Again, this isn’t your typical studio ballgame.
The film – with cinematography by Peter Andrews and editing by Mary Ann Bernard (both Steven Soderbergh aliases) – doesn’t always look beautiful. It has a cold blankness, befitting both the soullessness of its subject matter and – perhaps – its $2m budget. It warms up through short interviews the director has filmed with real-life basketball stars Reggie Johnson, Donovan Mitchell and Karl-Anthony Towns, who talk about making the transition from rookie status to the NBA. Filmed as they look up, above the camera, they talk about mistakes, insecurities, family and home. Suddenly, we see them as Ray sees them: as kids. Super-talented, multimillionaire kids, but kids all the same.
In picking at a system until it’s threaded, High Flying Bird is a classic Soderbergh construct. Throughout his career – from Sex, Lies and Videotape to Erin Brockovich to Che to Magic Mike – he’s revelled in telling stories of the individual chipping away at the status quo. Like them, like Ray and like Moneyball’s Billy Beane, Soderbergh sought an alternative to a system that was doing their passion a disservice. The rules have changed, it’s his game now.